The Bluff City gave a very Memphis welcome to its new soccer team, teasing players with a hint of sun before throwing severe wind-chill and a week-long thunderstorm at them. If that made the first month of a preseason a bit of a grind, well, all the better for helping the athletes acclimate to the city's sporting culture.
Turn on the TV to NBC Sports, ESPN, or even TNT to see the growth the soccer phenomenon has been enjoying. Local bars like The Brass Door and Celtic Crossing have provided spaces to watch games, but Memphis needed a bigger outlet for its soccer fandom. Two members of the Redbirds ownership group were happy to oblige.
- Bryan Rollins
- Memphis 901 FC
Peter Freund and Craig Unger are part of Trinity Sports Holdings, whose portfolio includes interests in the New York Yankees, Memphis Redbirds, 901 FC, and recently Dagenham & Redbridge FC, a soccer club in East London. Since the Redbirds season ended last year, the two have been working hard to ensure that all the necessary infrastructure is in place for a soccer team. Recently branded Memphis 901 FC, the team will play in the United Soccer League (USL).
Unger, the organization's president, started by hiring sporting director Andrew Bell, a league veteran who led the Charleston Battery to the USL championship in 2012. That appointment aligned with Unger's goal of aiming high in the team's first season. "We want to win the USL Championship," says Unger. "Crazier things can happen, even in year one. But our immediate goal is to reach the playoffs." In addition to a regular league season, USL teams are also entered in the U.S. Open Cup, which will see occasional clashes with Major League Soccer (MLS) franchises, the highest level of the sport in America.
While Freund and Unger already had extensive experience running a sports franchise, they needed someone familiar with the soccer landscape to be part of the leadership group. Luckily, one of Memphis' own fit the bill. Nicknamed "Superman" or "Captain America" after his heroics for the United States at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Tim Howard has called Memphis home since the early 2000s. The goalkeeper, who plans to retire at the end of his upcoming MLS season with the Colorado Rapids, heard about talks for a Memphis team early on and approached Freund about becoming a part-owner. Howard's name brings instant credibility to the organization.
Finding the right coach goes a long way to ensuring success, and the candidate chosen for the position has his own history with Howard. Tim Mulqueen showed his eye for talent when he discovered Howard at a clinic in New Jersey and has been a mentor ever since. Howard believes Mulqueen has the right mentality to make the team successful in its first season. "Tim is tough, a great man-manager, and knows soccer inside and out," Howard says.
Mulqueen is essentially working with a group of strangers for the first time, but he's excited. "Their effort, their commitment to getting better and getting to know each other has been tremendous," says Mulqueen. "We're a good team, and with the effort and commitment the guys are putting in, we can't help but get better."
With Terminix recently announced as the shirt sponsor and several preseason skirmishes with other USL teams under its belt, the organization and Memphis are counting down the days until kick-off. When the Tampa Bay Rowdies arrive for opening day this Saturday, March 9th, both the players and crowd will be ready to match the 901 FC's motto to "Defend Memphis."